Intro to Background Workers

This lesson plan was last updated to work with Rails 5.2.0 and Ruby 4.2.1


Learning Goals

By the end of this lesson, you will know/be able to:

  • Explain when you would want to use a background worker
  • Be able to implement a basic background process
  • What ActiveJob is and how it is similar to ActiveRecord


When building websites, it’s important to keep your response times down. Long-running requests tie up server resources, degrade user perception of your site, and make it hard to manage failures.

There’s a solution to this: return a successful response, and then schedule some computation to happen later, outside the original request/response cycle.

Do you need a job queue?

How do you identify areas of the application that can benefit from a background job? Some common areas for asynchronous work:

  • Data Processing - e.g. generating thumbnails or resizing images
  • 3rd Party APIs - interacting with a service outside of your site
  • Maintenance - expiring old sessions, sweeping caches
  • Email - a request that causes an email to be sent

Applications with good OO design make it easy to send jobs to workers, poor OO makes it hard to extract jobs since responsibilities tend to overlap.

1: App Setup

Let’s look at an example of backgrounding a task using Sidekiq. We’ll use the “Working-It” application for the following demo. Clone and bundle it like so:

git clone
cd work-it
rake db:{create,migrate}
rails s

Workin-it is a simple app that takes an email and a random thought to generate an email with a giphy about your thought. Start the server rails s and you should be able to view the app at http://localhost:3000 which has form inputs for an email address and a thought. When you submit that form you should feel the pain of a slow page load.


Check out our UserNotifierMailer mailer. A 5 second delay has been hard-coded in to simulate a real-life delay.

2: Mailcatcher for Local Email Processing

Now test that the application is working by entering an email address and any thought you may have right now. You should see an email in the mailcatcher UI with the thought-giphy.

Notice that this process takes a very long time. What we have here is a perfect candidate for a background process:

  • Operation is slow
  • User’s interaction with the process is already asynchronous (submit the form then go check their email)
  • Operation is well-encapsulated behind the UserNotifier interface
  • Operation requires relatively little data as inputs (email address and random thought).

Sidekiq and Resque are the 2 most popular queuing libraries for Ruby. For this application, we’ll use Sidekiq.

3: Dependency – Redis

Like Resque, Sidekiq uses Redis as a database to store queued jobs, so first make sure you have redis installed and running.

Run redis-server

If you don’t already have redis, install it with homebrew:

brew update && brew install redis

Then run redis-server.

This command starts the redis server on port 6379. Once the redis server is running it is ready to queue jobs that still need to be done.

You can check if your redis process is running by executing the command redis-cli:

$ redis-cli>

The need for running our Redis server now is similar to how Postgres must be running in order for ActiveRecord to interact with our database.

4: ActiveJob and Sidekiq Setup

Sidekiq is the adapter we’ll be using with Rails’ ActiveJob. ActiveJob was introduced in Rails 4.2 as a way of interacting with these background worker adapters more easily.

A worker class inheriting from ActiveJob::Base will have access to job enqueing methods, as well as many callbacks. Those can be seen here.

We can add the sidekiq gem to our Gemfile:

gem 'sidekiq'

bundle the app and you should now be able to run a sidekiq process by executing the command:

bundle exec sidekiq

You should get the fancy Sidekiq ASCII logo in your terminal:

     sss  sss         ss
     s  sss s   ssss sss   ____  _     _      _    _
     s     sssss ssss     / ___|(_) __| | ___| | _(_) __ _
    s         sss         \___ \| |/ _` |/ _ \ |/ / |/ _` |
    s sssss  s             ___) | | (_| |  __/   <| | (_| |
    ss    s  s            |____/|_|\__,_|\___|_|\_\_|\__, |
    s     s s                                           |_|
          s s

We also need to configure ActiveJob to use sidekiq as its adapter:

# config/application.rb
class Application < Rails::Application
  config.active_job.queue_adapter = :sidekiq

5: Making a Job

Now we have sidekiq running with our application, but so far it doesn’t do anything for us. Let’s create a worker to handle our Workin-it email.

ActiveJob looks for jobs in the app/jobs directory. These job files will typically end in _job as to avoid namespace collisions.

Rails 4.2 introduced a generator for these jobs:

rails generate job gif_sender

The above will create GifSenderJob saved to the app/jobs directory.

class GifSenderJob < ActiveJob::Base

6: Defining Job Operations

Within a Sidekiq job, the instance method #perform is what gets called whenever a job appears for our worker to do. Other methods can live within the job class, but #perform is what will be invoked when running the worker.

Let’s think about what needs to go in here and about what inputs are required for the worker to do its job:

  • Needs to take in the email address and thought (since these are the parameters needed to send the email)
  • Needs to send an email using the UserNotifier

Given these constraints, it might look something like:

class GifSenderJob < ActiveJob::Base
  def perform(email, thought)
    UserNotifierMailer.send_randomness_email(email, thought).deliver_now

If you went the generate route for creating GifSenderJob, you may see something that looks like:

queue_as :default

This helper allows us to designate which workers queue our job should run on (should we have multiple workers).

By default, ActionMailer jobs run on the mailers queue. Changing default to something like urgent would redirect these jobs.

7: Queueing Jobs – Sidekiq::Worker.perform_async

The Sidekiq worker defines what actual work will be done whenever our background process is invoked. Now we just need to actually invoke it.

With Sidekiq, we dispatch a job for a worker to do later by calling ActiveJob’s class method .perform_later on our worker and providing it whatever arguments are needed for the job.

Under the hood, the .perform_later method writes data into Redis indicating the type of job which needs to be done and the data associated with it. The workers (in a separate process) are monitoring the queue so that whenever new jobs appear, they can spring into action and do them!

These workers can also perform jobs syncronously if needed. In that case, the method .perform_now would be used.

But enough chit-chat, let’s see what it looks like to actually queue the job. Recall that we were previously sending the email directly from our MailersController. Let’s replace the line that was sending the email with this line to queue our job instead:

GifSenderJob.perform_later(params[:mailers][:email], params[:mailers][:thought])

Remember – the arguments passed in to the .perform_later method here will eventually be handed to your worker’s #perform method, so make sure they match up.

Let’s try this out now - hopefully that painful delay is no more!

8: Sidekiq Dashboard

Sidekiq and Resque provide dashboards for us to monitor our local job queues.

They both run using Sinatra, so to enable them, we need to add Sinatra to our Gemfile:

gem 'sinatra'

Then, in our routes file, we’ll need to mount the Sidekiq dashboard:

require 'sidekiq/web'
mount Sidekiq::Web => '/sidekiq'

Now you can navigate to http://localhost:3000/sidekiq/. This dashboard is very useful for testing out jobs and recieving confirmation that everything is queued according to plan.

The Closing: ~5 min

  • Check for understanding
  • Discuss any clarifications or student misconceptions
  • Review goals, further resources, and next steps



Outside Resources / Further Reading